We all like to think we know how to look after our children’s teeth, but shocking figures showing that a third of children start school with visible tooth decay reveal we may not be as knowledgeable as we think.
Tooth decay is now the biggest cause of hospital admissions for primary school-aged children, according to figures recently published by the Health & Social Care Information Centre. Last year, 25,812 children aged five to nine were admitted to hospital for multiple extractions – that’s nearly 500 a week.
Oral health is better than it was 30 years ago, but improvements have slowed down in the past few years. And some problems, such as tooth erosion from juice, are on the rise. Dentists agree that we all need to get better informed about our children’s teeth.
So here are the 10 biggest myths…
1. Fruit juice is healthy
It sounds healthy but it’s just as bad for teeth as fizzy drinks because of two things: sugar and acid. Orange juice contains just as much sugar as cola (about 10g per 100ml – or six teaspoons in a 250ml glass) and apple juice has even more. It’s the sugar that causes tooth decay, while the acid in juice eats away at the enamel – in extreme cases, children’s teeth can be reduced to stumps.
And it’s a growing problem, with half of children aged four to 18 showing signs according to the British Dental Association.
The only drinks dentists recommend are water and milk. If they want squash or juice, it’s best to dilute it as much as you can get away with, have it with a meal and make sure they drink it quickly then take the cup away to minimise contact time with the teeth.
“The worst thing is a cild wandering around the house with a sippy cup or glass of juice, taking a few sips every hour,” says Karen Coates, dental adviser to the British Dental Health Foundation.
2. Dried fruit is better for them than chocolate
A whole generation of parents has grown up thinking dried fruit such as raisins are always a healthier alternative to sweets and chocolate – but it’s not true. Dentists loathe dried fruit because it’s full of sugar and so sticky that it sits on the teeth, effectively burning through the enamel and rotting them.
While they wouldn’t claim that chocolate was healthy, it is dentally safer. “The best treat is something that washes away quickly – that’s why chocolate is better than dried fruit,” says Dr Barry Cockcroft, who was the chief dental officer for England until earlier this year and is now a director at Mydentist, the UK’s largest dental group. Safer snacks include breadsticks, toast, cheese, nuts and seeds.
3. It doesn’t matter too much if their baby teeth decay
This seems to have a certain logic, as milk teeth are going to fall out anyway. But it’s disastrously wrong, says Dr Cockcroft, as ‘baby teeth’ aren’t all gone until age 10 to 12 – and until then they have a mix of adult and baby teeth.
“If they have tooth decay in their baby teeth, their permanent teeth are more at risk because the bugs are present, and it will also be harder for them to clean the teeth.” Extractions can also be traumatic, which may mean they are more reluctant to visit the dentist in the future.
4. Parents should let kids brush their own teeth at five
The official advice is for parents to brush their children’s teeth until seven, depending on the maturity of your child. That’s to make sure they get the full two minutes and the brush reaches all the teeth.
One eminent dental expert recently went a step further: Nigel Hunt from the Royal College of Surgeons advised parents to brush children’s teeth – or at least supervise it – until all the permanent adult teeth are established, at about 11 or 12, to minimise the chance of decay.
5. Eating fruit is good for teeth
Eating a whole fruit is far better than drinking fruit juice because, although fruit does have sugar, it also has fibre and, crucially, water to wash the sugars away from the teeth. Fruit is an important component of your child’s five a day, but as parents we’re often guilty of overdoing it because many children don’t much like vegetables and we’re desperately trying to cram in their five portions.
Stick to one or two pieces a day and opt for lower-sugar fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, kiwis, peaches and pears rather than high-sugar ones like grapes and pineapple. Eat them with a meal rather than as snacks if possible, or give a piece of cheese afterwards to return the mouth quickly to a neutral pH level.
6. Children should brush their teeth after eating
This sounds sensible, but is actually one of the worst things you can do, especially after they eat or drink something acidic. That’s because the acid in food “demineralises” the tooth for an hour after eating and softens the enamel. “If you brush your teeth right after eating, you can end up literally brushing your tooth enamel away,” says Karen Coates.
Always wait an hour – and if they drink juice with breakfast, it’s better to brush teeth before rather than after the meal. Coates gives sugar-free chewing gum to her children aged 17 and 12, to chew for 20 minutes after a meal. “Chewing gum encourages the mouth to produce saliva, which is our main defence against decay,” she says. “It neutralises the acids and gets our mouths back to a neutral pH level.”
7. Healthy snacks are just as good as proper meals
That might be true nutritionally, but constant grazing is spectacularly bad for teeth, even if we’re giving them healthy-sounding foods such as fruit, cereal bars, yoghurts and breakfast cereals. That’s because it’s not just about how much sugar you give them but how frequently your teeth come under attack.
But it doesn’t mean you should never give snacks. “We all live in the real world and children will want snacks,” says Coates. “Our teeth will withstand three meals and two snacks a day so as long as the good days outnumber the bad, it’s fine. What you can’t do is sip or snack all day, as the acid attack lasts an hour after each mouthful or sip and it effectively means your teeth are constantly under attack.”
8. Electric toothbrushes are more effective
If your children brush for two minutes and reach every part of their mouth, it doesn’t really matter if the brush is manual or electric.
But as research shows, only a quarter of children aged eight or under manage two minutes, so the timer that usually comes with electric brushes can make all the difference, “Two minutes is a long time to a child, so the timer is the best element of the electric brush,”
9. You don’t need to take your children to the dentist until their first birthday
In a survey by Mydentist, 57 per cent of parents waited until their children were at least one before taking them to the dentist (even though NHS dental care for children is free). But the first visit should be as soon as the teeth start coming through, at about five to six months. “You’ll get messages about good oral health and you’ll also normalise the habit of going to the dentist, which is important,” says Dr Cockcroft.
10. They should rinse the toothpaste away after brushing
The truth is the opposite: no one should rinse after brushing because the fluoride in toothpaste will continue to protect the teeth for 30 minutes. “This can be hard for children because they may not like the taste of the toothpaste and they may have got it around their mouths,” says Coates.
It also pays to take a careful look at their toothpaste: some children’s products don’t contain enough fluoride. For children under three, go for one with 1,000 parts per million. After three, they should use adult toothpaste, which is 1,450 parts per million. ..read more
Top image by Flickr user woodleywonderworks used under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 4.0 license. Image cropped and modified from original.